Americans lose tens of billions a year in telemarketing fraud and in Internet scams. The victims are often seniors, who are often approached through mail, telephone, e-mail or at their front door. Know your rights and how you might be vulnerable. As the old adage goes: If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.
Charitable donation or health care scams: Watch out for fake chari-ties or people who say they need to verify personal information over the phone. Anyone soliciting funds for charitable purposes must register with the state Attorney General's office. (BPC § 17510.85; GC § 12599) To find out if a charity is registered, call the Attorney General's office (see Resources) or visit the website (ag.ca.gov/charities). Also check with your local Better Business Bureau (bbb.org).
Door-to-door solicitation: Ask to see a business permit. (Most cit-ies require one.) Resist pressure to buy anything on the spot. If you do make a purchase, remember that you usually have three business days to legally cancel such a contract if it was made in your home or in a temporary business place, such as a convention center, restaurant or hotel. (CC § 1689.6(a)) Contact the Better Business Bureau to check out the business. To report a fraud, call the police or county district attorney's office.
Financial advisors and investment scams: Beware of investment seminars touting get-rich-quick schemes. Check out the "investment" before investing. Call the state Department of Corporations' toll-free hotline at 866-ASK-CORP (275-2677). For further information on protecting yourself, check out the Department of Corporations' "Seniors Against Investment Fraud" (SAIF) program. For a few SAIF tips, see Avoid Investment Scams in the next column.
Funeral and cemetery fraud: Watch out for high-priced sales pitches. The Consumer Guide to Funeral and Cemetery Purchases--available at no cost from the Department of Consumer Affairs' Cemetery and Funeral Bureau--details your requirements, pre-needs arrangements and what to look for in a contract. To verify a funeral establishment's license or to file a complaint, call the Cemetery and Funeral Bureau at 916-574-7870 or go to cfb.ca.gov. Check with your local Better Business Bureau as well.
Home repair/home improvement: It may sound like a good deal. A repairman will fix your roof with "leftover" materials from another job. You pay cash--and he does a shoddy job or nothing at all. Or a plumber fixes your clogged toilet and presents you with a $10,000 bill. Before hiring a contractor, get several estimates, check references and put everything in writing. Be aware that your home cannot be used as collateral in a home improvement contract if you are 65 or older. (BPC § 7159.2; CC § 1804.1(j)) Contact the Contractors State License Board (see Resources) to check the contractor's license and any past complaints. Such contractors must be licensed. Never pay more than the maximum allowed by law (usually 10 percent of the repair price or $1,000, whichever is less) before the work is done. For additional tips, contact the licensing board for a copy of What You Should Know Before You Hire a Contractor (also available online).
Medicare fraud: Never give your Medicare number to a stranger. Always check your Medicare statement to verify that you actually received the services charged to Medicare. If you suspect provider fraud, call Medicare. And to report suspected Medi-Cal provider fraud, call the Bureau of Medi-Cal Fraud and Elder Abuse in the state Office of the Attorney General. (See Resources.)
Living trust mills: Beware of "trust mill" marketing schemes in which salespeople pose as specialists in estate planning to gain your trust and confidence. These unqualified "experts" seek to obtain your personal financial information with the ulterior motive of selling you both a living trust and an annuity, which may not be appropriate for you. Such tactics may violate California insurance laws and laws prohibiting the unauthorized practice of law. To report a scam, call your local district attorney's office or the California Department of Insurance. (See Resources)
Telemarketing/mail /Internet fraud: It can be difficult to distinguish legitimate telemarketers and e-mail solicitations from those that are fraudulent. Never provide personal information or send money to solicitors who contact you first. Hang up or insist on calling the individual back after you check out the solicitation. Steer clear of any caller or mailer announcing that you have won a sweepstakes or foreign lottery and simply need to pay a "fee" or "tax" to collect your winnings. (The cross-border sale or purchase of lottery tickets is illegal--and so is any advance charge for collecting the prize.) For information on filing a complaint, contact the state Attorney General's office (http://oag.ca.gov/contact). To file a complaint about Internet fraud, go to ic3.gov.
Many other kinds of scams and schemes hurt seniors as well. Be on the lookout for credit repair/credit card insurance scams, real estate predatory lending (see Dealing with Debt), annuity fraud, and STOLI or SPINLIFE life insurance schemes (for information on these schemes, go to www.insurance.ca.gov/ and click on the Senior Information Center).
You can register your telephone numbers (including your cell phone number) with the National Do-Not-Call Registry, which is managed by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). To register, call 888-382-1222 or go to the website (donotcall.gov). You can also ask telemarketers to put you on their "do not call" lists. If they keep calling you, report them to the FTC. (See Resources.)
In addition, tell businesses not to sell your name to other companies. To remove your name from mailing lists, go to www.dmachoice.org and register online or download a form request and mail it to: Direct Marketing Association Inc. at: DMA Choice, DMA, Box 643, Carmel, NY 10512. To remove your e-mail address from marketing lists, go to dmachoice.org and click on Register for eMPS.You can also "opt out" of the credit agencies' pre-approved credit offer mailing lists. Simply call 888-5-OPTOUT (567-8688) or opt out online at optoutprescreen.com.
Identity theft is the unauthorized use of someone's personal data (a driver's license or Social Security number, for example) for any unlawful purpose, such as to obtain credit cards, loans or services. (PC § 530.5) It is a fast-growing crime that struck about 11 million Americans in 2011 and costs businesses, financial institutions and consumers billions of dollars annually.
Identity thieves may rummage through your trash, steal your wallet or skim encoded data from your credit card. They might go phishing (this refers to the use of misleading e-mails and fraudulent websites to trick Internet users into revealing personal data). Or they might plant spyware--software that collects personal information as it is keyed into your computer.
Identity thieves may rummage through your trash, steal your wallet or skim encoded data from your credit card. Or they might go phishing (this refers to the use of misleading e-mails and fraudulent Web sites to trick Internet users into revealing personal data). Or they might plant spyware -- software that collects personal information as it is keyed into your computer.
To keep tabs on your credit, request a free credit report annually from each of the three major credit bureaus. (See Resources.) To order your free annual reports, call 877-322-8228 or visit the program's website at annualcreditreport.com
If you fall victim to identity theft, take action immediately (see Protect Your Identity on p.12). For more information, visit the FTC website (ftc.gov), the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse (privacy.ca.gov), California's Office of Privacy Protection (http://www.privacy.ca.gov/), the Identity Theft Resource Center (idtheftcenter.org) and the California Attorney General's office (ag.ca.gov/idtheft).
It may be difficult. Increasingly, however, the law is providing you with added protection. For example, state law prohibits any business or individual--with the exception of a state or local government agency--from publicly displaying your Social Security number. Nor can your number be printed on any card required to access products or services. Your health care provider can no longer print your Social Security number on your identification card, and you cannot be required to transmit your number over the Internet unless the connection is "secure" or "encrypted." (CC §§ 1798.85 et seq) For more information, call the Department of Consumer Affairs' Officeof Privacy Protection. (See Resources.)
Notify the credit card company immediately. If someone runs up your credit card or uses your debit card without authorization, you are only liable for up to $50 if you promptly contact the company. (CC §§ 1747.10, 1748.31) It is also important to file a police report to document the loss and your response.
If you did not order it, it is considered an unconditional gift and you do not have to pay for it or return it. (CC § 1584.5)
Don't invest until you investigate. Call the Department of Corporations' toll-free number at 866-ASK-CORP (275-2677) before purchasing any type of financial product.
Don't invest right away: Slow down and take your time. Most fraud occurs because the con artist talks the victim into making a "rushed" decision.
Don't be too trusting. Remember, appearances can be deceiving.
Don't invest more than you can afford to lose.How much are you willing to lose if the investment turns out to be a scam? If you lose everything you have, what will you do?
Don't believe "guaranteed" large rates of return on your investment. There are always risks to investing.
Don't invest until you complete the"four C's": Consider your options. Compare the offer to others. Consult with someone you trust. Call the Department of Corporations' toll-free number listed above.
Source: California Department of Corporations, Seniors Against Investment Fraud (SAIF)
Be wary of those who tout themselves as specialists offering insurance and financial advice to seniors. Some simply use senior-related titles and designations to pose as experts. They may not have had any relevant training or experience at all. That fancy title may just be a marketing ploy to get your business.
Insurance brokers and agents are prohibited from using a "senior designation" to mislead consumers. They can no longer use any senior-related certification, credential or professional designation unless it meets certain criteria and has been approved by the California Insurance Commissioner. (IC § 787.1) To check on a senior designation, call the Department of Insurance's licensing division at 800-967-9331. If you have questions about an insurance offer, scheme or agent, call 800-927-HELP (4357).
Broker-dealers and investment advisers (and their agents and representatives) are prohibited from using any "senior specific" certification, credential or professional designation that could be misleading. (Corp. § 25243.5) For more information on "senior" specialists and advisors, go to www.sec.gov (click on For Seniors).
If you are a victim of identity theft:
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